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Was Avatar Anti-Religious

posted by Scot McKnight

Avatar.jpgSome are arguing strenuously against the megahit movie Avatar. The general complaints are that James Cameron’s movie, while a powerful visual experience, is:

Pro-environment
Anti-religious
Liberal, left-wing agenda
Anti-military
Worship of nature
What do you think?


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Jeremy Berg

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:05 am


4 out of 5 seem fair descriptions of the film. “Ant-religious” is a poor term since the film was certainly pro-Eastern pantheistic brand of religion.
I wrote a review highlighting these elements of Cameron’s agenda, but there’s no reason for anyone to “complain” about it. He’s telling a story, and he is free to how he wants to. We should clearly distinguish between “critique” and “complain” when reviewing films that offer and challenge particular worldviews.



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Joey

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:06 am


Wait, is it wrong to be pro-environment and anti-war? How is that anti-religious?



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Frog Leg

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:13 am


#2 Joey,
It is perceived by some as anti-religious because most of the anti-religious are pro-environment and anti-war. That’s where we are in political discourse these days.



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Joey

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:18 am


Frog Leg (nice name btw), I understand it just seems ridiculous. How dare we care about God’s creation and stand against killing his children in the name of some ideology.



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Andy

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:19 am


I have not seen the movie yet but I want to soon.
It seems that all of these objections stem from a world view, that is, if not the antithesis of the the objections pretty close. It supposes that when movies or stories that come along and have a different take on the world and the role of religion/faith, the existence and future of Christianity hangs in the balance. Does opposing films and books like these, or reading our insecurities into these narratives help further the kingdom of God?
I would argue that a story that gives pro-environment message is a good one unless we have forgotten that our story (the biblical narrative) gives a direct commission to care for and look after the environment (Gen 2:15).
I dont know if this movie is anti-military. If the story points out that killing others, genocide, and taking advantage of others for the benefit of a yourself/country is a bad, then I dont think that makes it anti-military. One question that this does raise is, if we see this movie as anti-military is that because we see our military doing these above things.
As Christians we are to be peacemakers, reconcilers, and lovers of humanity. Maybe movies and stories like these offer a critique.



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dopderbeck

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:34 am


I loved the movie in terms of its technical brilliance. But [note: spoiler alert!]:
But I agree that the movie’s message needs to be viewed with a critical eye. The Na’vi culture seems to lack any problem with “sin,” because the culture is literally joined together in a biological/spiritual connection with the entire planet. It’s undoubtedly a celebration of a “Gaia-ist” pantheism over the rapacious capitalist individualism of the humans.
Still, you could perhaps view the story from a missiological angle as a retelling of the Eden story. The Na’vi live in Eden. Their lives are in some sense what humanity could have been had we not sought to exalt ourselves over God (true, for the Na’vi there is no “God,” only the mother planet…). And the Jake character is a sort of Christ figure — he even has to become “incarnate” as a Na’vi to effect their victory over the evil that has come to invade their Eden.
Or you could just eat some popcorn and enjoy the special effects!



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Darryl

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:35 am


I’m sorry but I didn’t have time to really read the other comments. Just to respond to the original question: no, I do not believe it was anti-religious. It was Science Fiction. While some can make parallels with the goddess gaia, etc. I don’t think that is a fair assessment. The idea of Pandora being a living entity where all of the life forms were connected to it was excellent science FICTION–it also gives a scientific description of what it is. The world does not exist so it is not reality (even though it serves as a metaphor).
It seems to me this is the same concern voiced over Harry Potter (great books and great movies) and, yes, even the original Star War movies (ah, they were promoting Zen Buddhism!).
Make use of the metaphors Avatar gives us to communicate the Christian message–don’t sit around attacking the movie. I really don’t think Paul sat around attacking specific pagan literary works or poets or discouraged people from reading them. Instead, he quoted them!



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:48 am


Frankly, while movie is visually stunning and offers a somewhat compelling (if predictable) story, it lacks enough depth to cause this kind of concern. The film unashamedly panders to their market/audience. Nothing new there, just a bigger budget and some creativity.
The “pro-environment” and “worship of nature” aspects are there. I affirm the intention of the former, while roll my eyes at the latter (as it is just an old idea clumsily appropriated by us rich white guys from far more meaningful, indigenous sources). Cameron blends Gaia spirituality with Gaia hypothesis to place this film on the current hot topic. It is an important topic, but it seems clear to me that it is leveraged in this film for popularity sake alone.
I do not think the film is at all anti-religious. Whenever I see that critique come up it quickly becomes clear that they actually mean anti-Christian. And by anti-Christian they don’t actually mean actively antagonistic to Christianity, but rather just a worldview/religious belief system that is NOT Christianity. Having lived in a Christian sub-culture that demonized any belief not purely Christian, I can’t say I am surprised. However, like the Gaia dynamics mentioned above, Cameron has only shallowly appropriated whatever religious ideas he included.
It is liberal? Of course it is. However, you throw in the word “agenda” and suddenly it takes on a conspiratorial air. It is reflective of the film makers perspective on life and politics, so of course it is going to have his biases. As someone who doesn’t fall clearly into the so-called “right” or “left”, this is not threatening to me, but I can see where it would be in the current political culture.
Finally, to the claim that it is anti-military. Again, riding the wave of popular culture (and the public’s disillusionment with Iraq), this is another no-brainer. I think Cameron was over the top with this one, painting the villains in almost comic-bookish Machiavellian evil. Is there a fair critique in there somewhere? Maybe, but it comes across as a cheap shot.
That being said, this film is in NO way anti-war or anti-violence. The “good guys” used whatever means necessary to achieve their goals. The end justified their means. Cameron perpetuates the myth of redemptive violence that is already so pervasive in our culture. However, yet again, what else did we expect?
In the end, while I enjoyed the visual journey the film took me on, I left bothered by the film. It leaves me wondering if a film can be this successful without being so pandering, shallow and appropriating. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see it happening.
Peace,
Jamie



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Chris

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:48 am


Well said #1,Jeremy Berg.



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Bob Smallman

posted January 28, 2010 at 11:50 am


I’m sure Cameron has his own (not so subtle) agendas, but I simply enjoyed the movie as a movie. The graphics, especially in 3-D, are amazing!



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Wayne Park

posted January 28, 2010 at 12:16 pm


* spoiler
what really bugged me about the movie was that the dude never really gives up his power in the end. Way to appear charitable-progressive and yet still maintain the status quo power structures



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Larry

posted January 28, 2010 at 12:27 pm


Pro-environment? Anti-military? Liberal? Respectful of Nature? The horror, the absolute horror!
I’m afraid critiques like these say far more about the criticizer than the criticized. Somehow, I think the Nav’i more accurately reflect Jesus than the reviewer does.



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Mark Baker-Wright

posted January 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm


I won’t comment on what Avatar is or isn’t, as I haven’t seen it.
However, this idea that being “pro-environment,” especially when taken as a distinct and separate category from “worship of nature,” is a bad thing?
I find that incredibly offensive.



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dopderbeck

posted January 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm


Wayne (#11) — I think you’re right! At the end of the day, the “natives” still required a “western” savior, and their culture has been transformed from communal to heroic.



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Harald Solheim

posted January 28, 2010 at 1:04 pm


I think the most disturbing thing about these statements is that several of them would have been applied to both Jesus, Paul, and the first Christians by their contemporaries. The Jewish authorities took initiative to having Jesus crucified because they deemed him “Anti-Religious”. The first Christians were labeled atheists by the Romans and persecuted for it.



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Jeremy

posted January 28, 2010 at 1:26 pm


When I saw it, I just figured it was a science fiction rehash of the US and Native American relations during our expansion; except this time, the natives win. The Na’vi were clearly modeled after the stereotypical idea of native cultures and the military fit the stereotypical attitudes of Western culture of that era. If anything bothered me, it was that we REALLY DID think that way once (Custer’s last stand, anyone?).
If anyone is guilty of anything, it’s the reviewers for complaining that someone has yet again produced something that didn’t fit into their tiny little ideological box.



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Jakob

posted January 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm


Just like #16 Jeremy alluded to, the movie is basically a remake of Dances with Wolves… Do we call that anti-military and anti-religious?



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John W Frye

posted January 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm


Did someone think that *Avatar* was produced by Gospel Light Films?
Why don’t these fearful ones just watch Veggie Tales?



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CTVD

posted January 28, 2010 at 1:59 pm


To me, this movie screamed leadership style. I just read Long?s new book, The Leadership Jump, where he compared ?Existing? leadership to ?Emerging? or ?Postmodern? leadership. Avatar graphically displayed each of these.
One the one hand you have an autocratic style of leadership where you should trust the leader because of his position. This first form of leadership led to some who bailed out and joined the other side (?I didn?t sign up for this.?).
The other leadership style was one where trust had to be earned, and once it was, everyone was on board. A team was formed and the community became a basis for motivation. In Avatar this leadership style is even represented as praying to God for help, while the first leadership style goes it alone ? even to death.
Is it a leadership lesson for us? How do we choose to lead?



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T Clair

posted January 28, 2010 at 2:13 pm


My problem with the movie is that…it wasn’t good. I don’t expect to agree with the worldview in most hollywood movies. My problem is that it’s hard to take naked, blue smurf-indians seriously. Why is it that most Christians are getting hung up on these “worldview” issues without addressing that this is, from an artistic standpoint, a TERRIBLE film?



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Angie Van De Merwe

posted January 28, 2010 at 2:30 pm


Avatar is politically correct, but it does have some redeeming value for some people. Values differ from person to person, so movies are one avenue of expressing beliefs in our free society.
Environmentalism is based on the view that life is interconnnceted. We cannot live without the physical components that make up our environemnt. And since the environmnt is being damaged, many feel that this is a responsible response to human life to continue to exist.
The same could be said about the movie’s portrayal of the military. No one believes that war is good, but the movie portrays the military as the bad guy which will dominate a “peace loving comuunity” and use science to dominate another culture. This view is propitiated by those who want to further the distain for “imperialism”.
Oneness was a major theme of the movie, because of life’s interdependence. One must discern where and why certain aspect of responsibility and care are necessary and which are gong beyond the “call of duty”.These are personal commitments, and should not be political agendas on a world-wide scale, because there are always costs and benefits to any choice.
The “message” seemed to be affirming a tolerant view of others and their cultures and values. Multiculturalism always wins in postmodern thinking. So, rational thinking, and making decision and choices are “forbidden”. After all, the “elite” are to make that choice and decision for you. Don’t let them dupe you. You must know that issues and choose for the reasons you hold most dear.



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Jeremy

posted January 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm


#21 Angie: I’m not sure I understand your comment. Are you implying that postmodern thinkers believe that decisions should only be made by the “elite”?
#20 T Claire: I wouldn’t call the movie “terrible” as much as I would call it “not very deep.” It was enjoyable enough brain candy if that’s all you were after.



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Dave

posted January 28, 2010 at 3:44 pm


I particularly enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t a deep, thought-provoking, make-you-stay-up-all-night-contemplating-your-own-life movie, but it was entertaining. The art direction was beautiful and this is probably the first movie I’ve seen in 3-D where the 3-D aspect wasn’t distracting.
Is it possible that people have a problem with this movie being anti-religious (read anti-Christian) because they resonate with some of the themes (the interconnectedness of all creation, the evil inherent in the blind pursuit of wealth and personal gain), but they aren’t blatantly tagged as Christian?
We can be so afraid of God existing outside of the walls of Christianity that we automatically attribute everything else as “evil”.



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Matt

posted January 28, 2010 at 4:51 pm


It could be said that the movie is anti-religious, just as it is anti-greed, anti-human, & anti-mega-corporation. But weren’t the Na’vi practicing a faith, which most people equate to being religious?
So, no, it wasn’t anti-religious. But there will always be people that will find the movie, and it’s “message(s)” anti-something, or that it is promoting activity that seems to be anti-Christendom. And really that just boils down to people being in the wrong seat… the throne, where only the Lord is to sit.
Were there messages being conveyed through the movie? Yes. There were some wonderful themes and messages conveyed, and there were some that I don’t agree with. Which include the way(s) to solve conflict.
I think we Christians suffer too much from being tied to the philosophy/thinking of pluralism that Plato/Aristotle gave us, thus making it difficult for us to accurately evaluate what we perceive to be righteous.
Other than that, the movie borrowed a lot from other movie plot lines, but by now it’s hard to write a story that goes outside of the four plots usually sold to us by Hollywood. But, the FX were beautiful! Can’t wait for more movie makers to use the same technology.



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William Varner

posted January 28, 2010 at 5:04 pm


No, it is NOT anti-religious. It is quite religious which is obvious from the scene where the Navi are praying to their tree divinity. It is pro-pagan religion. Maybe there is an implicit anti-Christian agenda, but it is very religious.



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Jeromy J

posted January 28, 2010 at 5:09 pm


It was a sci-fi movie. People just need to chillax.



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Julie Clawson

posted January 28, 2010 at 5:28 pm


Wait, this is a serious question? Really?
When caring for creation makes one anti-religious you know the church has seriously gone off track.



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William Birch

posted January 28, 2010 at 6:31 pm


I loved this movie – saw it twice.
I wonder: if someone else other than James Cameron (whose religious views and politics tend to precede him) had created the film, would we even be having this exchange?



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Josenmiami

posted January 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm


I kind of enjoyed it …



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duhsciple

posted January 28, 2010 at 7:45 pm


This movie 100% affirmed traditional American religion!
C’mon, man! Open your eyes people!
The solution to military violence in this move was ??? Violence!
Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto plot
Cartoon theology



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Jules

posted January 28, 2010 at 8:25 pm


Let’s see:
1. Pro-environment: Yes, the ecological care is there, though the theme is not recent, movies and fiction for decades have developed this theme.
2. Anti-religious: what? The narrative plays with theological (christian & non christian) themes from the beginning. Whether one feels uncomfortable because is not a christian view is a another matter.
3. Liberal, left-wing agenda: Hmm. Well, the narrative seems to be playing dramatically against a kind of ferocious capitalism, or the possible outcome of the privatization of war. All you need to do is live in a majority world country to connect with those issues positively. However, I don’t think that an informed right-wing or a republican will have objections to those xtreme expressions (though realistic–remember black water in Iraq!) of a certain capitalist theory or corporate powers.
4. Anti-military: Well, I’m not sure. Anti-private-military-forces, yes. Anti-war? I don’t think so. The tragedy is that the indigenous people being oppressed need to resort with the same kind of war-violence in order to attain peace. Sad.
5. Worship of nature: Not really. This is where the ambiguities of the rendering of the story evokes the imagination of everybody, and hence it plays out according to one’s knowledge of religions. My take is that is it not worship of nature, it is reverence. It is not pantheism.In pantheism there is no discernible universal consciousness. If it is anything, is panentheism. Here the world or the material order is part of the divine being, but is not everything that the divine being is. In christian terms, the world is in God, God in the world, but God is greater than the world. Or who knows it might be a process-pantheistic view of God. The issue is that the divine being responds in the story. It assumes a position. It ultimately saves the people from potential extinction.



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beckyr

posted January 28, 2010 at 9:10 pm


who the hell has said that a movie must have an underlying message, and even more anathema, that it need be the “right” message. Why can’t some people just enjoy the imagination, fantasy of it and walk away and that be enough. Sheesh! makes me angry.



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Scott

posted January 29, 2010 at 9:07 am


Jules #31 caught the military issue as well – Avatar is not anti-military it is anti-Blackwater and the private armies that are cropping up. That part of the story demonstrates what happens when mercenaries carry out corporate strategy instead of military force directed by a democratic government. This story line shows up in one of the Tom Clancy inspired novels, Hawx, as well. (Am I admitting too much there?)
I saw Cameron in an interview where he responded to the anti-military question and he pointed out that the hero is a Marine. He added that he was on his way to show the movie in Afghanistan.



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Bill

posted January 29, 2010 at 2:50 pm


David Brooks got it right in his piece at the New York Times: the white messiah, comes in to destroy, is won over by the spiritually superior and environmentally cuddly “natives,” joins them and leads them in their defeat of the military-industrial complex. Or, as my daughter and I said to each other after seeing the movie: Dances with Wolves.
Loved the effects. Too bad the story was so mundane. But then, if I were spending $300 million of my money, how brave would I have been. To me the oddest thing is that it will be hard to turn this story into Star Wars. I can’t remember any of the Na’vi names!



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preachinjesus

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:27 pm


Probably not anti-religious so much as it was “pro-over the top action thriller.”
Maybe anti-intellectual…I dunno
Seemed pretty obvious to me that it was just a movie that was created to change the way movies are done.
You’d think that for $300 million they could’ve hired a decent screen writer. That part of the movie stunk!
PJ



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Peter

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm


Here’s my review (spoiler alert): Avatar certainly lives up to the hype and is worth seeing. On one level this story can be dismissed as pantheism, a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. While there are definitely elements of gaia worship, I think there is a deeper spiritual story here and some Biblical parallels:
Pandora is a perfect world where the people commune with God and with nature – like when Adam and Eve walked with God on our planet before the fall. And like the garden of Eden, there are two sacred trees – the ‘home tree’ and the ‘tree of souls (or voices)’. After the fall, God banished Adam and Eve from the garden so they would not eat from the tree of life (Genesis 1:21). The humans in Avatar are trying to get back to the tree of life for the one mineral they need: unobtainium (it’s a bit unsubtle). So Cameron puts mankind back in the garden and again we fall: sin, greed, exploitation and murder.
While the humans of the future seem to be completely secular, the Na’vi people are defined by their worship. But this is not true pantheism. These people, I mean aliens, do not worship everything, but only one god: Eywa (nearly Yahweh). Nor is this god just a cosmic energy force, but one who communes with her people and actively answers prayer and intervenes in their battles.
Ironically salvation for the Na’vi from the humans comes through another human, Grace Augustine (surely a reference to St Augustine’s doctrine of grace?) and her avatar program. The main character, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic ex-marine. He seems to symbolise the human race and like his planet is paralysed and sully-ed. As he spends more time with these new people his old ways seem less and less important to him to the point where he abandons his old life to become part of the tribe. He enters this new paradise through the Na’vi avatar body as a messiah like figure – fully human, yet fully Na’vi – trusted by both sides as the perfect mediator. What a great picture of what Jesus did for us. Avatar actually means ‘incarnation’ in Sanskrit! He brings them a message of salvation and eventually leads them to victory over the human ‘sky people’. He even gets that moment at the beginning when Eywa anointed him like a dove from heaven. Later he goes to the tree of souls as a high priest to ask for divine help on behalf of the people. At the end Jake is fully initiated into Na’vi society by actually transforming his consciousness into his avatar, a process which he describes as being “born again” which allows him to live in his new, perfect body.
Finally as with many of the other names, I’m sure that the name of the planet, Pandora was not an accident. In the Greek creation myth she is the Eve character created as the first woman by the gods (read it here). She was given a box by Zeus which she was told not to open. Like Eve, Pandora’s curiosity leads her to eventually open the box releasing all the evils into the world. The story finishes when she opens the box again to release ‘hope’ which had been left inside. Despite her actions and the consequences of her disobedience there was still hope for mankind. In Cameron’s world this is likely a message that there is still a possiblity of redemption for our planet and the human race if we get our act together. As Christians we know that our Hope is fulfilled in Jesus precisely because we are incapable of getting our act together. Biblical ‘hope’ is not just a positive feeling but a confident expectation that what God promised will happen. Paul talks about the ‘hope of the gospel’ (Col 1:23). This is the good news of the hope of forgiveness for the worst of sinners (a weeping prostitute saved by faith), the hope of reconciliation (the prodigal son coming home), the hope of holiness (the leper cleansed by Jesus’ touch) and it available to all. “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. (Rev 22:17)



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Rev. Roy D.Shaff

posted January 30, 2010 at 12:29 pm


I did a little writing about the Spirituality the movie Avatar. Homiletics Magazine e-mailed my blog article to its readership recently. You may like my thoughts.
http://royshaff.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/the-spirituality-of-james-cameron%e2%80%99s-movie-avatar/
I think that the film has remarkable symbols and symbolism. While ?American? culture?s first recognition of the word Avatar will come from using computers, as a symbol that represents the user, the longest standing use of the word Avatar comes from Hinduism. An Avatar is a manifest deity in human form. In the Bhagavad Gita, a key Hindu text, Krishna is the Avatar of Vishnu (a god). In human form, Krishna has the consciousness of a god. Krishna is depicted as blue as Cameron?s Na?Vi. Hmmm, so?why blue? Why are the Na?Vi, the good guys in the film, blue? What does it mean for the Earthling, the film?s hero, to become a blue Na?Vi or a blue man?
I did a quick internet search, and I found this on a website entitled Indian Divinity. I thought this explanation was helpful:
In Hinduism, persons with a depth a character and the capacity to defeat evil are blue-skinned. The creator has given the maximum of blue to nature (ie. the sky, oceans, rivers, and lakes) the deity who has the qualities of bravery and determination the ability to deal with difficult situations of stable mind and depth of character is represented as blue colored. Lord Krishna spent his life protecting humanity and destroying evil, hence he is colored blue.
The film is packed with spiritual ideas that are worth exploring. Cameron paints a world where: everything is alive; love is the most powerful purifier of all; everything is born twice; balance is the key to all life; and, Pandora itself is a collaboration of energies where every individual has something to contribute. While New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says the film is a commercial for pantheism (everything is god), I think it is obvious that Cameron did not write ?Avatar,? to be controversial or promote a religious view. James Cameron was making a movie to appeal to the greatest number of people. It is very telling that what is appealing to so many is so unapologetically religious.



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jon Snyder

posted February 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm


I thought it was an average movie with amazing special effects and a clear agenda (esp. the anti-bush polemic, epitomized by the ignorance of the colonel whose speech sounds just like what Bush used to justify a preemptive war). Not worth the hype (positive and negative) it created.
The religion aspect was simply a conglomeration of every religion Cameron could find. At best a mediocre syncretism without the originality of the “force” in Star Wars.
The acting wasn’t good, the dialog was worse, the characters were flat, and the plot recycled.
My wife and I call it Fern Gully 2.



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Yoftahie Suleiman

posted September 21, 2012 at 2:54 am


What is the message of avatar?

1.The aliens are human beings.
2.The main actor is the devil.If you noticed,he learns their nature from the woman.
3.The destroyer characters are God and angels.

The message(wish) is
1.We have to stick together(new world order) and fight back our creator and try our mortal chances.

Notice:
The destroyer characters are superior to the fallen angel(main actor).

For further understanding of the true message
1. Read your bible about the beast,end of days and how Satan deceived eve.and try to wake up from this world false reality.

But truth never dies.In the end no movie prophecy saves the soul except the true God.



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